Bipartisan effort boosts brainpower

Posted on September 10, 2007

While the television showed images of presidential candidates and arguments over Iraq, you might have missed something last month: A $34 billion piece of legislation to keep American jobs from going overseas passed the U.S. Congress overwhelmingly. One week later, President Bush signed it into law. The casual observer could be forgiven for assuming that such an accomplishment must not have been terribly difficult, or perhaps just not very important. But in fact it was the result of several years of hard work by a bipartisan group of members of Congress, and, I believe, will prove as important as any piece of legislation the Congress passes this year. The America COMPETES Act is a significant investment in the brainpower advantage that has made the United States the wealthiest and most powerful nation in history. Our country has only 5 percent of the world's population, yet produces nearly 30 percent of the world's wealth. But the world is changing. China, India and others have watched closely and learned from our example. They are working hard and gaining fast. Boost to research nationwide In a nutshell, the bill would help preserve America's leadership in science and technology by expanding research and education programs across the country. That includes doubling the research budgets at the nation's science agencies, including at great national laboratories like Oak Ridge and research universities like Vanderbilt and UT. The new law will also help expand programs to improve the undergraduate education of our future science and engineering work force. It will help prepare thousands of new schoolteachers, provide additional training for classroom veterans, and encourage careers in underserved schools. Here in Tennessee, the law provides opportunities for hundreds of math and science teachers, and thousands of students to go to summer academies and institutes of math and science. We need to do more since, at MTSU, for example, more than 1,000 students are studying math, science, technology and engineering but only 40 plan to teach. It will dramatically expand the availability of advanced-placement courses in science and technology and provide support for a residential high school for science and math. When I was governor, then-Speaker Ned McWherter and I went to North Carolina to see about establishing such a school in our state. We didn't have the money then, but Gov. Phil Bredesen has made it a priority today. This all began when we did something that happens all too rarely in Washington: We asked the people who know what to do. Tennessee's own U.S. Rep. Bart Gordon and I, along with two other members of Congress, asked the National Academy of Sciences what were the top 10 things the U.S. must do to keep our edge. A distinguished panel, including three Nobel laureates, came back with a list of 20 — and we got to work writing it into law. Congress' response was a reminder that bipartisanship is still possible, even on complex issues. That kind of cooperation rarely makes the front page, but it's how to get things done in our government. It's the kind of thing I hoped to do when I came to the Senate in the first place.